The Autobiography of Budeshi: How we successfully advocated for the adoption of the OCDS by the Nigerian Government
By Seember Nyager
Part I: The Bold Step
How long does it really take to successfully advocate for a change in public policy and practise? From my observation, it could take a bit of time and requires a level of dedication and fervency of spirit. It took 11 years for Nigeria to enact an FOI legislation, it is taking Ghana 13 years and still counting. In spite of these grim statistics, my colleagues and I managed to advocate for the adoption of the Open Contracting data standards in the space of 9 months. No doubt, it may have been more tedious to get a law passed, it could have been just good luck, great timing, doggedness or a combination of these that enabled us achieve this success in such a short period; it may have nothing to do with these. But here is our story of how we successfully advocated for the adoption of the Open Contracting Data Standards (OCDS) in Nigeria.
I work for an organization that is called Public and Private Development Centre-PPDC (alias Procurement Monitor) and for a significant number of years, we have been supporting people to report and monitor public procurement processes. I started as program officer at the beginning of 2010 and I was promoted to CEO in 2013. In monitoring public procurement processes, which is the process through which the Government acquires and disposes of public goods works and services, we always require information. Accessing information is usually a challenge but leaning on the great job done by several CSOs such as the Media Rights Agenda for over a decade, we eventually had an FOI Act in Nigeria. My colleagues and I did not let it cool from printing before we started to use it to access [procurement] information. At first, we faced a lot of resistance and after some litigation, some advocacy and enlightenment through our persistent written requests for information, we have been able to achieve some breakthrough in accessing information, albeit mostly on request.
Although today, we have much more information than we had access to in 2011, there is a recurring challenge of linking budget and procurement data to public services because information at various stages in the contracting process is labelled based on varying formats. This was and still is a big challenge, because it means that for some executed contracts, it is difficult to say with absolute certainty, that a certain budget line is the appropriation from where a particular project is being executed. The fact that the budget line may also lump various projects which are later broken into separate procurement processes also intensifies the challenge. It is also difficult to know the clear specifications for each of such projects because the procurement records accessed may not necessarily list the specifications in a clear way that can be used to track performance. To add to all of this, there is the issue of various codes being used at various stages without the codes being used to uniquely link and verify each process. All these make it difficult to observe and report on a single contracting process from its conception, to budget appropriation, to bidding process, contract award, contract implementation and ultimately, public service delivery. Finally, the fact that information is mainly accessed through FOI requests and not proactively through a system that links various stages, makes it tedious; and means that only few people can really participate in the process through which public services are delivered.
And so when the Open Contracting Partnership launched and published the open contracting data standards in November 2014, there arose the opportunity to advocate for its adoption in Nigeria as we genuinely believe it responds to the challenges of incoherence we face with using data to verify the performance of public services. To provide some support to this cause, I applied for an OpenGov fellowship being run by Code for Africa and Open Knowledge; where I proposed to seek the adoption of the Open contracting data standards by the Nigerian Government within a period of 6 months. I was very happy to be selected and the fellowship officially kicked off in August, 2015. It was a great opportunity because it was also integral to the work that we have always done at PPDC; it meant that the institutional support required to carry out our advocacy demands was available. And that is the first lesson I would take from our advocacy experience. You need strong institutional support.
Part II: Setting up Shop and the Kick-off!
To enable us adequately link procurement and budget data and make sense of it, I also needed people with strong technical skills who could see the benefit of data within a context. So i reached out to Patrick Enaholo of the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos who is now our lead developer and technologist and introduced him to the OCDS. It was a good bet because although he was new to OCDS ( he is now a pro!), it was love at first sight and he studied it from the inside out. I also reached out to Joshua Olufemi, a data analyst who works with the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Within PPDC, my colleague Gift Omoidedia, who for a long time has been in charge of procurement data management was also called on board the team as was Samuel Offia, who helped us organize the meetings we held, cater to our gastronomical needs and who is now digging into the incorporation status of contractors carrying out public projects. With this core team and with support from my other colleagues at PPDC, we commenced.
On commencement, we looked at the datasets we had gathered from various public institutions over time and tried to convert them using the OCDS schema. Patrick developed code that generated the OCDS records using Google sheets. This was based on spreadsheets provided by the OCP. So we converted and transferred all the data we had on procurement planning, tender and contract awards to this spreadsheet. To keep up the tempo, and to not interfere with people’s weekly work schedules, we had to organize weekend workshops fortnightly in both Abuja and Lagos.
Although I had a fellowship that provided monthly stipends of 1000 dollars, for a period of 6 months, there wasn’t any direct financing for our workshops and travel costs but we reckoned that the project was ours and would need to go on in spite of our budget constraints. So we tried to build some of our meetings around others scheduled in either Lagos or Abuja depending on where the majority of the team would be towards the weekend. Although we held meetings online, we knew that we needed to convene physically and as often as possible to strategize and restrategise. For us, it was what needed to be done and we decided that we couldn’t rely or wait for external funding to make this happen. And that was a second lesson; don’t wait to have all the resources (time, money, people) just start with what you have.
As for the data we had entered on the spreadsheets, although it seemed like labelled figures that did not necessarily make sense by just looking at it, through our eyes, it was really good to look at 🙂 In that feel-good spirit of a beautiful spreadsheet, we started reaching out to public institutions to advocate for the adoption of the OCDS. So we sent a letter to the regulators, Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) requesting for a meeting to demonstrate to them the utility OCDS. We also sent letters to the Attorney General of the Federation, the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, the Presidential Advisory committee on Anti-corruption amongst others. Later on, after a meeting our colleague, Samuel attended in Seoul on clean construction along with staff from the Ministry of Works and Housing, we also sent out a letter of request to that Ministry. With our laptops and data on google sheets, we set out to make our presentation. My colleagues and I were ushered into a room full of directors and on behalf of the team, I made our case.
Part III: Making Data Sensible
It was not easy to talk in the abstract to Government officials without a great demonstration that showed how the data standards could enable the objectives of our procurement system. For the avoidance of doubt, Nigeria’s reformed procurement system ultimately seeks to achieve value for money in delivery of public services through a transparent, competitive, accountable and professional system. Even though we were seated in a room filled with engineers and data analysts (in other words, people presumably comfortable with figures) our arguments may have made the case, but the presentation of the data wasn’t compelling enough; and for that reason, our submission seemed to be resisted.
And so the team sat together and we decided that we needed to roll out our visuals to bring our data to life. Concerned about the instability of Google sheets and the rigour of entering data on them, Patrick also decided to build another data entry platform to house our OCDS data. When the data entry platform was built, Tim Davies who runs the OCDS help desk, provided useful feedback on its structure and provided us with an example to guide our data entry at every stage. Having viewed the visual tools that other countries had deployed to enable people make sense of OCDS data, we were inspired to try our hands on some of the tools out there. Lindsey Marchessault who manages data and user engagement at the OCP referred us to great work being done in several countries including Ukraine, Mexico and Montreal. Inspired by Ukraine’s Prozzorro, we tried out their visualization software called Qliq and then Joshua our data analyst, who had experience with Tableau also got us to try creating visualizations with the tableau platform. Using both Qliq and Tableau, we developed various visuals and started to use them for our next round of advocacy.
We then made presentations to the Procurement Professionals Association, to the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, and at a meeting PPDC organized for public institutions and the press. Although i think we were a bit convincing, we were told repeatedly that we must get high-level buy-in for our proposal to stand a chance. Usually this was also said with a grim look and sometimes, strong statements such as “it would never fly in Nigeria” were made. At this point, we were running thin on resources but after an unsuccessful effort at receiving a seed fund from the fellowship we decided to lean on our internal support from PPDC and take a break from any fund raising at that stage. So the entire team tried to participate in advocacy visits and my blog posts were critically reviewed by Patrick (in the same way he would review the work of his students!) To be honest, the team was and still is, a blessing. Everyone latched onto the project as if they conceived it and gave more than I could have ever imagined. And that was another lesson; a committed team that fully owns a project is the best resource one can ask for.
Part IV: The Birth of Budeshi
In spite of prospects for adoption of the OCDS that seemed grim, somehow, we were all burning with passion to move the project forward. Encouraged by Kathrin Frauscher and the team from the OCP, we examined all the advocacy meetings we had attended; one of the criticisms was that the visuals were difficult to understand. On our part, we were also concerned with the restrictive nature of some of the platforms, particularly the need to sign in before accessing some of the visualization platforms and the limited features available for people to select what to be visualized. We also wanted a system we could build on based on feedback received, one that we could integrate into other functionalities we develop as we increase public engagement.
So we decided to draw up a small criteria with features of the kind of tool we would like so that the criteria and identified features within the platform would guide our search and selection of a tool. The team agreed that we would like visuals that enable data interactivity, user engagement and that is self deployable (requiring little or no sign in, downloading etc). Based on various visual tools and sites we were referred to by Katelyn Rogers from the Open Knowledge International, Stephen Abbot Pugh from Code for Africa, Lindsey Marchessault, Mihaly Fazekas from the University of Cambridge, our data analyst, Joshua, tried to select what tools best met our criteria. In the end, Tableau and Qliq seemed most feasible but they still did not fully meet our needs. And so, on one of those long saturday meetings, we decided that rather than spend 10,000 USD to deploy tableau, we should probably build ours based on the features we had identified. We also decided that the project needed a name people could remember and in the middle of the night, after trying to name the project in different Nigerian languages, we came up with the name “Budeshi” which means “Open It” in Hausa language and everyone of us loved it. To our delight, the world loved it too and remembered it. And in that space of time, we learnt that a project needs a name that is memorable to people 🙂
Part V: Our Unexpected Advocate Emerges!
Just before the end of the year, we received a response from the Attorney General of the Federation to come in and make our presentation. The meeting was scheduled for 2pm and we were there by 1:30pm. We were ushered into a waiting room where many other people were waiting to see him. The adjacent waiting rooms were also filled up nevertheless, we didn’t think we would wait for as long as we did. An hour passed, then two hours and no one called for us. In fact, other visitors had come and had been called into the inner chamber and we were still waiting to be called. As 4pm approached, we became restless and my colleague Nkemdilim Ilo, who joined the team for the advocacy had to leave us in order to pick up her children from school. Having skipped lunch to get to the Attorney General in good time, we became impatient and so I went to ask the secretary why we hadn’t been called. We were told to be patient; as it would soon be our turn to meet with the Attorney General. When it was 6:30pm, no one had called us. At this time, everyone in our waiting room had been attended to. Again, I went to the Attorney General’s reception to make sure our names hadn’t been struck out from the appointment list. And then the lady ushering people in and out of the Attorney General’s office announced that only one more group will meet with the Attorney General and all the others would have to take a further date. Fortunately, the last group to meet the Attorney General turned out to be ours and so we trooped into the office of the Attorney General.
As soon as we got in, the Attorney General informed us that he would not be able to watch any demonstration, we should just make our case. And so on behalf of the group, I made our case. We told him that the OCDS would help prevent corruption and inefficiencies across the procurement value chain because it linked budget and procurement data to public services; thus providing a trail that can be followed by anyone. As a result, I said, we would like him to support our cause to have the OCDS adopted by the Nigerian Government. The Attorney General informed us that the system we are proposing is much needed in the country and he would ensure that a committee is set up to look at the standards and think of ways to mainstream into the country’s affairs. He asked us to formalize our collaboration with a proposal to them detailing how the OCDS works and our request.
We were all very excited at how well he seemed to understand the OCDS adoption we were proposing; what we did not know was how much of a commitment the Attorney General would make to ensuring it is adopted by the Federal Government. After a meeting of about 15 minutes, the Attorney General became the champion we never expected. And that for us was another lesson; in our minds, we knew those we considered reformists, we knew those who were the most relevant because they played regulatory roles and we thought our champions would arise from those places. Alas, our champion is the Attorney General and for us, he pushed the right buttons to make our voices heard.
Part VI: A Dedicated Visual Platform for Budeshi
As we continued engagement with the Attorney General and the Presidential Advisory committee on anti-corruption, I continued to write about Budeshi and the articles were constantly circulated by external colleagues including Stephen Abbot Pugh and Goerg Neuman of the OCP. This gave our work a lot of international visibility which several others picked up on. While the engagement was ongoing, Patrick and Joshua were working on our dedicated visual platform. At the end of December, we estimated that our visual platform would be ready in April but by our next meeting in early February, the visuals were ready. We were full of joy.
And so we wrote to everyone again, including the BPP to re-demonstrate the utility of the OCDS using our newly deployed tool. Thereafter, we were invited over by the BPP. This time, PPDC and our locally built platform, Budeshi, was well received; partly because the new visualization platform on Budeshi was a great illustration of the utility of the OCDS. The other reason was because the Attorney General had reached out to the BPP on the OCDS. At the meeting the BPP suggested that the platform include a geo-mapping feature and we left the meeting with the understanding that BPP would be granted access to study the back end of Budeshi and thereafter a roadmap for adoption can be discussed.
Through several letter exchanges, we continued our engagement with the Attorney General and with the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption. On the advice of Prof Bolaji Owasanoye of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption, we started a conversation with the Institute of Quantity surveyors and they also expressed interest in working with us. Having moved the Budeshi platform from Alpha to beta, we all decided that it was time to seriously focus on using data to tell human stories of why the OCDS is a necessary next step for improving procurement efficiency and service delivery. To do this, we needed resources and so based on agreed activities, I developed a budget for the year and shared with the team. Based on the needs identified in the budget, we reached out to the Mc Arthur Foundation, and to the Open Society Initiative of West Africa to support our efforts. Work on Budeshi continued with Gift and Joshua leading on data entry into the system whilst Patrick went ahead to add a geo-mapping functionality to Budeshi. He also developed an app to enable us capture photos and location data while on the field. I focused on strategy coordination, writing about Budeshi and fundraising. Therein lies the other lesson. In all of this, we realised the importance of team members knowing their roles and running with it. The Budeshi team is blessed to have that level of collaboration.
Using the new Budeshi app, Joshua, Gift and I set out to demonstrate how the Budeshi platform could be used enable public accountability by following up on the construction of a primary health care centre in a community on the outskirts of Abuja.
As all these activities were ongoing in Nigeria, members of the African Freedom of Information Centre, based in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda indicated their interest in deploying Budeshi and had some support to do so. We were very glad and we have started to engage with them.
Part VII: The Breakthrough!
The primary reason why we built Budeshi was to demonstrate to the Nigerian Government, the utility of adopting the OCDS. We feel that the adoption of the OCDS is a necessary next step in ensuring that disclosure of procurement information is open, coherent, and can be easily linked to public services that emerge from the expenditure. Of course we did not know how long it would take for the Government to deploy but we also figured out that whether or not the government adopts the OCDS in a day or in two years, the Budeshi platform can always run independently to enable the verification of procurement performance. But we never forgot the primary purpose for which it was set up. As the team continued working through all the possibilities for Budeshi’s existence, the Open Contracting Partnership invited me to participate in the conference by the Commonwealth secretariat, titled “Tackling Corruption Together”, which held a day before the anti-corruption summit and where our President, Muhammadu Buhari, delivered the keynote address. With Gavin Hayman, the Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership nudging me on, I tried my best to have a word with my President Buhari about the OCDS after his keynote speech. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to speak with my President but I had the opportunity to once again, speak with the Attorney General of the Federation who assured me that as he had indicated to us, the Nigerian Government is taking the case for adopting the OCDS seriously and we would soon hear word about it. The Senior Special Assistant to the Attorney General, Juliet Ibekaku also assured me that the OCDS is firmly on their agenda.
While I was encouraged by the interest and commitment demonstrated by the Attorney General and his officials, nothing prepared my colleagues and I for its adoption by the Nigerian Government on the day of the Anti-corruption summit. I woke up early to a mail from Gavin Hayman, with an attached document of what seemed to be Nigeria’s commitments that would be announced at the summit. And there written boldly, almost identical to our advocacy pitches, was the commitment to adopt the Open Contracting Data Standards. That was music to my ears and I was happy. Very happy.
In that moment, i remembered a slide I always attached to presentations by Margaret Maed and it made perfect sense although i concede that we havent “changed” the world (yet) 🙂 .
Part VIII: The task ahead
As we roll up our sleeves to support our Government’s efforts in implementing the OCDS, we salute the courage of the Attorney General of the Federation and the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption. Most of all, I am personally indebted to the wonderful team who just ran with this idea even though there was very little compensation for weekend meetings. We cannot forget the procurement monitors who for years, sourced for the data that enabled our demonstrations; to OSIWA who did not relent in providing support to procurement monitoring and for the in-house team at PPDC led by Gift and later by Nkem, who rolled up their sleeves to present Budeshi to various groups whenever the need arose. We look forward to learning from countries including Ukraine that have taken the bold step in implementing the OCDS across the public sector. We continue to rely on great inspiration from our friends at the OCP and now, we look to the entire country to ensure that we put our best foot forward to ensure that we prevent corruption in our procurement system using the OCDS.
Let the action begin!